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Lisa Samson


Lisa Samson has been writing for ten years, although it seems like twenty! Married for 15 years with three children, Lisa is grateful to be a novelist. In an age where so many women feel the need to be out in the workplace, Lisa has had the privilege of working from home at a fulfilling career. What a gig! Music is a very important part of Lisa's life. As the worship leader/programming director for her church, Lisa ministers each Sunday. All in all, Lisa recognizes she has been blessed time after time. At 38-years-old and counting, she eagerly anticipates yearly growth in her writing, minstering and mothering, never content to stand still no matter how comfortable the resting spot.

Had Victoria Holt not picked up a pen, I suppose I wouldn't have either. I read everything she wrote growing up. I loved the intrigue, the mood, the men. As I've grown as a writer, I've found the works of Anne Tyler (SAINT MAYBE, DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT and many other great books) and Larry McMurtry (LONESOME DOVE, CADILLAC JACK, and TEXASVILLE to name a very few) to be not only entertaining to me as a reader, but educational to me as a writer. Chaim Potok, C.S. Lewis, Madelaine L'Engle, and Annie Dillard always thrill my writer's soul. Jack Kerouac gives me permission to be me. But there isn't a writer who makes me say, "Yes, yes that's it exactly" more than W. Somerset Maugham, my all time favorite writer. Someday, oh I hope, I can be half the writer he was. Is that fashionable? Probably not, but then, we novelists need to be true to who we are or we'll end up simply writing copy.

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November 10, 2006

Christy Award-winning writer Lisa Samson is one of faith fiction's most engaging novelists. Quirky, multi-ethnic characters and the folks you'd find sitting next to you in the pew in your church community populate her 17 novels. Samson's themes often reflect her own battle with depression, the joys and trials of motherhood and marriage, and the intersection between faith and social justice. In this interview,'s Cindy Crosby talks with Samson about her new novel, STRAIGHT UP, her recent political activist picketing escapade, her diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome and her secret desire to be a barber. Tell our readers a little about STRAIGHT UP and how you came to write it.

Lisa Samson: Oh dear. It should be called "Straight to Hell in a Handbasket" if the title were to fit the process. It took me 100 thrown-out pages to figure out the book in the first place, and then after sending it in, I basically had to cut out the first 70! I came to the story bit by bit. This was definitely a novel that bloomed before me, and I discovered what lay inside each petal as it opened up. It was the most frustrating writing experience I've ever had, and I really prayed a lot during it because I felt like I was in a snowstorm.

FR: Your family recently moved from Maryland to Lexington, Kentucky, the setting for portions of STRAIGHT UP. Was this move planned before you started writing the book? How have you adjusted?

LS: The move wasn't planned when I started writing the book. Remember those first 100 pages? That was Uncle Geoffrey as an old gay man who lived in a penthouse apartment in New York. He ended up as a single, ponytailed lawyer in Lexington Kentucky, fighting for the poor and disenfranchised. And kinda sexy too. So I should have been finishing the first draft when I arrived. I ended up placing Geoffrey in Lexington because, well, there I was!

I haven't adjusted all that well. I love my faith community and the people I've met, but it's such a unique location. I've spent years living in the South and this isn't what you'd think of as the South. It has some Midwestern thrown in, some Horse, and then a little West Virginia. I can't decipher it as I'm from Maryland, which has its own very unique feel, neither Northern nor Southern. It's like going from sour pickles to pixie stix.

But I love living in downtown Lexington. Getting to walk places, interacting with people I'd never even walk by in the suburbs. Being around University of Kentucky is fun too. College students are so much fun to watch, and there's something invigorating about a college town, isn't there? Having said that, however, it's quite a change from the suburbs where I've always lived previously.

FR: You're living in a community now, which also dovetails with some of the plot in STRAIGHT UP. Tell us about that.

LS: In STRAIGHT UP, Uncle Geoffrey, who is the uncle of the two main characters, Fairly and Georgia, is a member of an intentional Christian community. Intentional Christian communities each have their own distinct flavor, and the one in STRAIGHT UP looks different from ours. Basically, our church is a group of people who've moved intentionally into the city to try and be Jesus to the forgotten members of our society. It manifests itself in different ways, fellowship members ministering in different fashions, some with refugees, some with the homeless, some with at risk youth --- but two of the most important common elements are:

We live downtown. And that makes it easier to minister to the poor and the needy because they're right in front of you. It doesn't have to be a special trip! (Will and I needed it to be in our face because it was so easy for us to pretend all this pain and heartache didn't exist when we lived in the 'burbs.)

We live intentionally. That means we try and make whatever we do intentionally count for the kingdom. This includes what we buy, where we buy it, as well as serving those Jesus would have us to. It could get very legalistic if we were that type of people. But we're really not. We all realize that a cup of cold water in His name is a precious gift. And we fail, sure, but in our community even our failures become a holy offering to God. And we can actually admit we've failed without that horrible shame that keeps most Christians silent. Perhaps all people aren't called to this lifestyle, and we do realize we're living prophetically, "on the fringe" so to speak. We both felt a distinct calling to do this. Without that, I don't think I'd last more than a month.

FR: You got a little heat from some readers for the not-so-happily-ever-after ending of STRAIGHT UP. How does this ending fit into your philosophy of faith fiction?

LS: One lady was downright angry with me! The funny thing about it is, and I can't give a spoiler, the ending was probably the most hopeful ending I could have written! And in that, I felt like the ending completely meshed with faith. It may not have been the ending some folks wanted (ooh, I'm trying so hard not to spoil it!), but ultimately I think it's a very gospel message. I've had far more good comments than bad, so that's good. Negative emails can derail me for days!

FR: On your website you mention that you struggle with depression. How do you think this influences your writing?

LS: In major ways. A lot of writer/creative personalities deal with depression or mental illness. But what being a depressive sort does, which benefits the writer, is that it allows us to wallow in our misery! I know that sounds funny, but when we're tired of wallowing in our own misery, we can wallow in our characters' miseries! It also influences my writing in that you can see a big distinction in books I've written primarily in the summer and books I've written primarily in the winter. I actually think the winter books are deeper: SONGBIRD and THE LIVING END were both winter books. But the summer books tend to deal with larger scale issues: QUAKER SUMMER (social justice) and TIGER LILLIE (spiritual abuse). Although I'm listening to the new audio version of TIGER LILLIE right now and one character is extremely haunting, she's more of a winter character.

FR: What strategies do you use to get your writing done in a busy household with three children and a husband in seminary? I seem to remember you wrote at a cigar store when you lived in Maryland….

LS: Oh I miss Main Street Cigar so badly! I loved having that place to write in, to commune in. Now I write catch as catch can in various coffee shops as well as home. Writing from home is excruciating. I also write at a cabin we bought last year as an investment property, and I get so much work done when I'm out there. The hard part is carving out several days at a time with all that we have going on as a family. Will's school schedule is the one thing we don't mess with, so we have to work around that. And with homeschooling our youngest, it's a lethal combination for "away time." Honestly, I don't know how my books get done. Perhaps it's like the shoemaker and the elves.

FR: You were recently part of a protest against torture in Washington, D.C. How does this fit into your ideas about how faith and life intersect?

LS: I grew up with a pro-life activist for a mother, so activism isn't foreign territory to me at all. Some issues I can let slide by, but this one hit me in the heart. As I stood there with a lot of people of faith, in the rain, my own tears sliding down my face, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. When people can start to justify torture, something's deeply wrong. Talk about moral relativism! I stood there before the White House and thought about our founding fathers. I'm sure they knew the day would come when we'd allow the Constitution to be shredded without much of a whimper, but I doubt they thought it would be quite this soon. We're letting our fear get the better of us, allowing us to justify acts we would have deemed barbaric even ten years ago. Torture is immoral. Period. I simply had to stand there and say so. I hope the Supreme Court overturns this.

I guess, for me, where faith and political activism meet is found in a couple of questions. Am I fighting for myself? If the answer is yes, then I don't know if I can justify the actions on my own part in light of my faith. But if the question becomes, "Am I fighting for others, for a more just and merciful nation?" then yes, it's a matter of faith for me.

FR: In STRAIGHT UP, Uncle Geoffrey is active in a crusade against the coal companies and mountain top removal mining. Does this reflect your own interest in the problem?

LS: Definitely. Our faith community is involved in this issue that is happening primarily in Eastern Kentucky, our side yard. We take local matters very seriously. People are living in third world conditions due to mountaintop removal mining. Christian brothers and sisters, too! They don't have clean drinking water and can't bathe their children, and when rock comes through their roofs and windows, they have no recourse. Some houses have been split in half! The funny thing is getting on some of the coal industry's websites and reading how literally removing a mountain is better for the earth! Uh, are people seriously fooled by this spin? Probably. I've been fooled by less! Ha! But I've seen the devastation firsthand after a tour this past spring. Jobs are getting scarcer because this mining requires only 40 percent of the personnel. So, once again, people who already don't have all the advantages of the more privileged are trodden on.

FR: Your prose is fresh and invigorating, but your education is in film and telecommunications. Where did you learn to write?

LS: First of all, thank you for the compliment! Pssst! Over here! Lisa walks her readers over to her bookshelves, and lo and behold only one book on writing haunts the wooden slabs. I learned to write by reading good writing. Period. And by reading primarily fiction from the time I began reading. There's just no shortcut. Oh yes! And I've learned to write by writing. I have a very low embarrassment threshold. The least bit of sentimentality or cliché makes me cringe. I'm blessed that way. Taking into serious consideration what my editors have told me has been key as well. And listening to what other writers have to say when I'm with them: taking for myself the advice that makes sense, pushing away the stuff that's just malarkey. That is to say, what may work for them may not work for me. It's really important for the artist who functions as a writer to have a good filtering system. If writing advice doesn't fit your artistic vision, it's okay to throw it out the window! So knowing what your vision actually is is the key to moving forward.

FR: What writers do you admire?

LS: W. Somerset Maugham, Anne Tyler, Truman Capote, Chaim Potok, Larry McMurtry, Douglas Coupland.

FR: Has your diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome two years ago impacted your writing life, priorities and the way you live? What exactly is Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome?

LS: Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome (WPW) makes your heart speed up and do weird rhythms. Basically, the electrical impulses get funked up and go round and round instead of in and out. Sort of. Your heart can speed up so fast it can send you into cardiac arrest.

This has affected the way I've lived in that life is too short now. I could literally die at any moment. I probably won't. But even with a slight chance, it changes things. So now, I have to do what I have to do. If I died tomorrow and all I did was write books and raise my family, it wouldn't be enough. Not for me. I'm not condemning anybody who is fine with that. But God had something else for me. This paved the way for me being accepting of our life in intentional Christian community. So my priorities are not about having new cars and a cushy house and fabulous clothes (although I do dress kinda funky!). Nor is it about being right about everything anymore. I know my feet are of clay and my brain is too! Can I just be a little more like Jesus than I used to be? That's what I want my life to be about. Am I succeeding? Not really. But I'm not afraid anymore to look at Him as the true standard for a Christian. I'm clinging to Him saying "Show me! Please show me what it means to be a harvester, to be a laborer." And He gives me great opportunities to do just that. Lots. I probably only take Him up on 20%. I fail way more than I do the right thing. But these days, I'm aware of my failures. Before, I wasn't.

FR: You recently launched your speaking career. What do you speak about?

LS: Well, I said in my bio I started speaking, but the problem is that nobody but writer's conferences have taken me up on it! Ha! I'm such a Rodney Dangerfield. Now if people invited me to speak I could speak on several topics of their choosing: 1) Taking Off Our Masks 2) What God Sees When You Look in the Mirror 3) Living Justly as a Family 4) The Courage to Simplify Your Life 5) Anything writing related. Purity is another topic I'm willing to tackle.

FR: Tell us a bit about the Serenity Retreats/writing weekends hosted by you and your husband, Will.

LS: The serenity weekends for writers are homespun, warm gatherings. Good food, quiet setting, gathering together to talk about writing, to brainstorm and then, to actually write! The topics vary as to what the participants themselves need. But the overall purpose is to encourage writers to keep on and to pursue excellence and to get away for a spell. We all need that.

FR: You switched genres this summer with the release of APPLES OF GOLD, your first illustrated book for older girls, a parable about staying pure. What prompted this?

LS: It's always been an issue dear to my heart. And nowadays, the stakes are so high for teens with AIDS. Women have so much to offer our world, and I want our teenage girls to value their worth before God. It was prompted by the fact that the idea settled on me all at once one day. I just wrote it down and it moved forward from there.

FR: Your life seems jam-packed! What do you do for rest and relaxation?

LS: I love to read! And I spend way too much time playing Zuma on the computer. Hanging out with friends is the best. My husband is host-extraordinaire! I'm serious…he's quite gifted in hospitality. He makes great food and we gather folks around our table frequently. The more people the better.

FR: If you could be anything other than a writer, what vocation would you choose and why?

LS: I'd go back to art school, I think. I wanted to be an artist all my life but wasn't allowed to major in art. I started out as a business major and ended up with a degree in Television Production. So yeah, an artist. However, after the DC protest, I took Ty over to the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. We stood before Rothko and Pollack, and I had to realize that I don't have it in me to be a great painter. It was a real moment for me, to let that all go. Sometimes I flirt with being a barber. Just have a little shop, cut men's hair and drink lots of coffee. Turn off the lights, lock up, go home.

FR: Tell us about QUAKER SUMMER, due out in 2007, and EMBRACE ME, the novel you're working on for the Spring of 2008.

LS: QUAKER SUMMER has just been chosen by Women of Faith to be 2007's Novel of the Year. I was blindsided by this because the book deals mostly with justice issues like homelessness, poverty and even, to a small extent, war. Heather's story details her move from wealth and disillusionment to a life of purpose and servanthood to those less fortunate. My respect for Women of Faith really went up in that they wanted to bring this onto people's radar screens. I even take potshots at women's conferences in the book! They must be pretty good sports there. I'm grateful, really grateful, that they extended this opportunity to this book.

EMBRACE ME is in its rudimentary stages, but it contrasts a power-hungry preacher with an urban missionary who gives away power. So I'll be thinking a lot in the next couple of months about God's crazy, seemingly counterintuitive ways of "first shall be last," "to find yourself lose yourself" and the ever popular "take up your cross." I have a very hard time with pride, and I really wish Joel Osteen was right and my life would be so happy and full of wealth. I know it's not going to be that way, but I am hoping to learn a lot from the preacher as I write about him, to dig inside myself and pull up the hidden prosperity gunk that can make me so unthankful for my present blessings and give it a good shot of gospel bleach!

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